‘A very good idea’? Charity and race in mid nineteenth-century London

Some Inmates of the Strangers' Home for Asiatics, Africans, and South Sea Islanders

Anyone familiar with print culture in the nineteenth century will probably be able to testify to its underlying racism expressed most often in statements of white (or rather British) racial superiority and in ‘ethnological studies’ of the many ‘others’ found in British society or in the vast reaches of the Empire.

This is most evident in the colourful descriptions of immigrant Jews in East London and in reports of the port communities that stretched the length of the Thames and its docks.

The racism may be familiar but it still has the capacity to shock. Take for example an article from the Daily News published in May of 1872 that was headlined ‘“Darkies” from the Deep’. What followed was a fairly sympathetic report of a visit to the Strangers Home for Asiatics,  Africans, and South Sea Islanders, which was then situated in the West India Dock Road.

The home was established in the 1850s; set up by charitable donations to create a haven for destitute Chinese and Indian (Lascar) seamen who, abandoned by ship-owners, struggled to find work in the capital. According to the author they fell prey to ‘crimps, mostly of their own colour’, who fleeced them of their meagre wages and left them nothing with which to support themselves.

‘Their bodies were found in out-of-the-way corners, under railway arches, or in common yards, whither the poor creatures, enfeebled by hunger, and their marrow chilled in their bones by the rigours of our climate, had crept to die’.

In three years (1854-56) hundreds had died and many more had been admitted to hospital. A huge donation by the Maharajah Duleep Singh was followed by donations from the Queen, Indian merchants and others, before Prince Albert laid the foundation stone for the Home, which opened its doors in 1857.

When the Daily News’ reporter visited in May 1872 he described it thus:

‘A group of Lascars, with their bushy looks and swarthy skins, contrasts strangely with the solitary Chinaman who leans thoughtfully against the wall, his pigtail over his shoulder; a Malay with yellow eyes, long straight hair, and strong jaw, is conversing pantomimically with a tall, straight, hawk-eyed New Zealander, whose cheeks and forehead are fantastically tattooed. There are full-blood negroes from Gambia, and half-caste Portuguese from Goa, natives of the Friendly Islands, and lissome Cingalese [Singhalese], and representatives of perhaps a dozen other races neither easy to be distinguished at a glance, nor capable of being understood by any Englishman not endowed with the gift of tongues’.

The reporter noted the sounds and smells of the Home, the peculiar foods (’curry and rice’) that mingled with more familiar stuffs (like bread and butter and tea). He commented on the arrangements for bathing (‘the Oriental takes his bath every morning as religiously […] as he says his prayers’). And the article ended by noting that the Home had a good stock of Bibles and New testaments ‘in a variety of Eastern languages’.

A newspaper report from June 1857 described the opening of the Home (on 3 June) and noted that it had space for 230 inmates plus a superintendent and various officers and staff. The opening was formally marked by the singing of the psalm 67 (‘May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine on us— so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations’), and a scripture reading.

This underpinned the Christian missionary ethos of the charity.

Almost all Victorian charity which operated to help the poor, the homeless, or the friendless, did so under the aegis of the church (in one form or another). There was a space for Muslim prayer in the back yard of the Home but while the writer of the 1872 article noted this, it seems clear that the hopes of those involved in this ’mission’ was that here were ready coverts to Christian religion and (perhaps even) Western ‘civilization’.

In the 1850s and throughout the century London was home to very many people of all races and creeds. It is likely that in the eighteenth century there had been many more, and that while they were denied the limited support available to the indigenous poor, they were not subject to the racism that developed from the end of the 1700s. With the expanse of Empire in the Victorian period that racism became more entrenched as white superiority was increasingly held up as a justification for subjugating ‘inferior’ races.

I am reminded of what Mahatma Gandhi supposedly replied when asked what he thought of Western civilization?

‘I think it would be a very good idea’, he said.

[from Daily News, Wednesday 29 May, 1872; Daily News, Thursday 4 June, 1857 ]

Ice cream, pears and a tram ride: stealing from the church ears five lads a trip to a Reformatory

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Highgate United Reformed Church

In early October 1873 five young lads appeared before Colonel Jeakes,  the magistrate at Highgate Police Court in North London, accused of stealing from the church. Specifically the five were charged with stealing the contents of missionary boxes (collecting boxes we’d call them today) from the Congregational Chapel on Southgrove, Highgate*.

Benjamin Woodward had discovered the loss about a week before the case came to court. He found that 12 missionary boxes had been been taken from a drawer in the school room of the chapel. The bottom of the drawer had been cut out in order to remove the boxes, so this suggested that the thieves knew exactly where to look. It took the police  a little time to track down the culprits but after one of the ‘gang’ turned informer the five were eventually dragged into custody.

William Alcock told the magistrate that he had been out with Frederick Taylor (13) on the previous Sunday and saw him take some money out ‘of a heap of dirt on Holloway-hill’. When he asked him where it had come from and who had hid it, Taylor told him it ‘was his week’s wages’.

A little further on down the hill Taylor unearthed some more and when pressed by Alcock admitted he’d got it from the Congregational Church. Later that day Alcock and Taylor were joined by John White and Alfred (both 13 and described as labourers), an errand boy of 10 named Herbert Warr, and Herbert Tuck who was just 9 years old. The little group of lads took their ill-gotten gains and hopped on a tram towards Moorgate Street. When they got into town they blew some of the money on ice cream and pears.

The police, in the person of Henry Webb (a detective with Y Division) investigated the case and apprehended the lads, with Alcock’s help. In court the youngest boy (Tuck) confessed to having entered the chapel via a window while the others stood watch outside. They had made the thefts over two nights it seems, their fear at being caught being overcome by the thrill of doing something illegal and the delight of finding such a bounty of ‘treasure’. Mr Woodward told the court that each boxes has contained upwards of £5 so in total the lads might have got away with nearly £60.

All five lads were remanded in custody so that places could be found for them in Reformatory schools, their criminal escapades (as adolescents at least) were at an end.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 09, 1873]

*now the Highgate United Reformed Church

An anti-slavery ‘missionary’ is exposed as a fraud

Thomas C. Cook was an American. In fact he described himself as a “a missionary from America for the abolition of slavery”. This was a noble purpose so one wonders why it had landed him at the bar of the Union Hall Police Court in November 1839.

Britain had abolished the slave trade in 1807 and thereafter the Royal Navy intercepted slaving vessels and policed the now illegal trade. In 1834 slavery itself was formally abolished in all of Britain’s colonies and territories, and hundreds of thousands of slaves were freed. So by 1839 slavery had been abolished in Britain and its empire yet it persisted in the United States. Within a few decades the defenders of slavery would find themselves engaged in a bitter civil war that left America divided and millions thousands dead or wounded.

Cook had come over to either lend his support to the opponents of slavery or to learn from them so he could continue to campaign against the practice in the US. Sadly its not really clear what his position was because his appearance in court suggests he was something of a charlatan.

The landlord of a pub in Camberwell (The Perseverance) brought Cook to court to answer a charge of not paying for his drunks and dinner. Richard Petch told the Union Hall magistrate that Cook had entered his establishment and ordered a rump steak with oyster sauce. Having enjoyed his meal he supped on beer and smoked a cigar, while the the public bar filled up.

He soon engaged the locals in conversation and got involved in a long argument on ‘theological matters’ which , at some point, he then declared himself the winner of. He drank heavily and told anyone who would listen that he was an American recently arrived in London to ‘lend the aid of his talents to the abolition of slavery’.

As he became louder Mr Petch suggested he had drunk  enough and might like to settle his bill and leave. At this the missionary replied that ‘he had no cash on him’ but that he was promised some money by the Lord mayor of London. He promised to pay what he owed just as soon at his lordship settled with him. Petch was not inclined to wait on such a nebulous promise however and demanded payment; when that was refused he called for the police and Cook was taken into custody.

The magistrate asked him where he lived and how he maintained himself. ‘I have no home’, Cook replied, ‘I go about from place to place and sleep at those places that suit my convenience’. He added that, ‘I have been driven to great extremities since I landed on British shores, and my funds are all expended’.

When the justice admonished him for living way beyond his means and at others’ expense Cook claimed that he had come over with a manuscript to publish but had not the funds to do so. He had presumably intended (or hoped) that he could live off the proceeds of his polemic writing.

A police inspector testified that Cook had been seen going from place to place behaving in a similar manner, eating and drinking and claiming to be destitute at the end or promising to pay later when in a better situation. In legal terms it turned on whether Cook at wilfully committed fraud, in making the landlord believe he had the funds when he did not. In the end the magistrate (Mr Jeremy) gave the American the benefit of the doubt and possibly did so because Cook promised to endeavour to return to the US as soon as possible if he was released.

However, Mr Jeremy warned him that he came before him again for a similar action he would prosecute him under the Vagrancy Laws and he would face gaol. He advised the landlord to pursue a civil claim for the loss of payment.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, November 15, 1839]H